Within his seminal "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," King repeatedly makes a distinction between just and unjust laws. He puts it simply by stating that any law that uplifts human personality is just and any law that degrades human personality is unjust. He uses numerous examples of unjust laws to illustrate this distinction, including Nebuchadnezzar, Roman persecution of Christians, the Boston Tea Party, and the systematic genocide of Jews and other minorities by the Nazi party.
This distinction is crucial to his counterargument that disobedience to the law leads to anarchy. About halfway through his letter, King writes:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Thus, King acknowledges that the breaking of laws without thought could lead to anarchy. However, he argues that unjust laws do not deserve the same respect and must be changed. Anarchy is not the result of civil disobedience and peaceful protest. Instead, willing and thoughtful action that moves toward changing unjust laws actually makes our society better and more orderly, as it strengthens our legal system by eliminating the laws that prey on minority populations.
The Boston Tea Party paved the way for a more representative and fair government in the United States; the defeat of Nazi Germany led to the liberation of the Jewish people; and academic freedom was the result, at least in part, of Socrates's civil disobedience. All of these acts led to a more orderly society through individuals willingly and lovingly breaking the law in order to eliminate injustice.